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The Board of Deputies' disingenuous discourse on "divisive" BDS

January 23, 2014 at 6:15 am

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has made a bizarre attack on students at Middlesex University for displaying a plaque that marks a twinning arrangement between the students’ union and their counterparts at Al Quds University in Palestine.

Middlesex University’s students’ union actually passed the twinning motion in 2011, yet two years later Board of Deputies vice-president Jonathan Arkush has chosen to attack what he has called the plaque’s “tendentious language”. The text accompanying the plaque reads as follows:

The Middlesex University Student Union is twinned with the Al Quds University Student Union in Jerusalem, Palestine. Students in Palestine have had their right to education consistently denied by the Israeli Occupation: checkpoints, attacks on Universities and limitations on movement seriously hinder the ability of students in Palestine to learn. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the ‘right to education’: we fully support the struggle of our Palestinian brothers and sisters to realise this fundamental Human Right.

To display on campus these words is, according to Arkush, “totally counter-productive” to “good relations between students” and apparently even risks “attempts to forge better links between Jews and non-Jews at the university”.

It is unclear exactly what about the twinning arrangement and the plaque Arkush believes would harm relations between “Jews and non-Jews”, and the Board did not reply to a request for clarification. Similarly, the Union of Jewish Students has said the plaque’s language – which notes well-documented facts – is “problematic”, but has not explained why.

Arkush’s comments come as the Board has published its response to the British Methodist Church’s consultation on the pros and cons of Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) – and they serve to shed some light on the discourse of the latter.

The Board’s response to the Methodists, coming in the context of “constant communication” with the “leadership”, is long and too full of error and misrepresentation to correct here (one amusing example is the citation of “international law” in a section on settlements that fails to mention that settlements are – illegal under international law).

But one of the key rhetorical themes to highlight here is how the Board constantly criticises BDS as a “divisive strategy”, contrasting it with supposed “[more] unifying forms of political activism”. This is a frequent charge levelled by pro-Israel advocates, particularly when it comes to the faith community – yet it is deeply disingenuous.

Because what the Board means by ‘divisive’ are those actions likely to upset those seeking to shield Israel from accountability for human rights violations – or indeed, any reflection of the reality for Palestinians under Israeli apartheid. The proof? Look at the accusation, of damaging relations between Jews and non-Jews, that Arkush levels against a simple plaque – a claim that includes the implicit assumption that all Jewish students share the same views as he does.

Speaking of which, another response of a very different sort to the Methodists’ consultation has been published by Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods. Regarding the Board’s calls for so-called non-divisive ‘dialogue’, J-BIG writes:

What kind of dialogue is sought by the Board? As the mouthpiece for Israel, it is committed to ‘an unwavering relationship with the state of Israel’, so the parameters of dialogue are very limited.

They continue:

Dialogue may be worthwhile if there is any chance that it will be used to encourage insight and change, towards respecting Palestinian rights. Instead it is used to bully others into acquiescence with the powerful – the Board’s main aim for dialogue.

Sounds familiar. Meanwhile, however, Palestine solidarity activists – including on campuses – continue to make progress in efforts to answer the Palestinian call for BDS campaigns – a call that, instructively, the Board does not once mention.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.